Russ Levenson: How Do You Love Thee?


Like many clergy; my work entails working with people of all ages--that often includes children--even young children. We have a pre-school at St. Martin's in Houston where I serve. I make an effort to roam the halls at least once a week or so. All kind of interesting things happen to me during these encounters--sometimes a smile, sometimes an unsolicited hug and often a question or two. Not too long ago, I was walking down the hall and I was stopped by one of our little ones--a small tyke, not yet old enough to read. She pointed at me and said, "Father Levenson...why do you dress so funny?"

I told her, "Well, I am a priest and this is my 'uniform,' so to speak. The way a doctor wears a white coat and a stethoscope, a fireman wears a uniform and so on; and this is what 'I' wear." And then she pointed to my collar and said, "Well what's that! It looks like it would hurt!" I told her it was my collar, it was made out of plastic, and I took it off. I told her she could even touch the embossed letters on the back of the collar. While she was doing so, I said, "Do you know what those letters read?" And she said, "Yes, of course I do! Kills ticks and flees for up to six months!"

You know, what we wear on the outside says a great deal about who we are on the inside. If I was a banker, I might wear a suit and tie every day. If I was a policeman, I would don that uniform. If I liked to play tennis, you might see me in a knit shirt and white shorts. The same is true of our actions. 

Who we are on the outside says a great deal about who we are on the inside. This is precisely one of the messages that we are offered in both of our lessons.

In the passage from Leviticus, God instructs the Hebrew people to live justly, kindly, lovingly with one another. It is not enough just to say you are part of the Hebrew nation or even just to "say" you are a follower of Yahweh. Yahweh's people live by Yahweh's law--and His chief law is to love the other. So, for instance, here God tells the Hebrews what that love "looks" like. He says things like, "You should not steal from one another or lie to each other--you should not take advantage of others," and so on. But as it is not just a matter of saying things, it is also not just a matter of action. It is, frankly, a matter of the heart. So this passage ends with a clear injunction from God: "You shall not hate in your heart anyone.... You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord."

That is a passage that is familiar to most of us; and it is something upon which Jesus draws in our Gospel lesson when He tells His followers love is an absolute necessity in the life of His followers, and not just discriminatory love, but love that reaches out to everyone. Jesus says you have to go far; in fact, He says, "I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven...." Loving the other...whomever that "other" may be is evidence that we are, in fact, children of our Father in heaven. When it comes to love, if we follow Jesus, we don't have an "out."

But what might authentic Christian love look like in our world today? "How do I Love Thee?" wrote the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. How are we to go about this command to love?

Let me offer a few reflections. First, by saying what love is not. Second, by suggesting what it is and then lastly, by offering some arenas in which that love is to be carried out. First, we must agree that love is "not" nice. Niceness may be part of love, but those of you who live in any kind of loving relationship know that it is not always nice. Love, as any father or mother will tell you, is often painful, often sacrificial, often involves the pouring out of yourself--things we do not necessarily associate with being "nice."

A parent knows that part of his task to love his child is to care for them, provide for them, and be affectionate toward them. A parent also knows there are those times when he or she must pull back and objectively offer discipline. It is true for loving parents that "Discipline hurts me more than it hurts you." A spouse knows she is called upon to be caring and supportive of her husband, or a man of his wife. But there are times when he or she must pull back and say "No," to abuse, addiction or neglect. A good friend is there when you need them--that is both for support but also for those times when he or she must pull back and say "no" to destructive behavior.

Jesus was loving. He was love incarnate. He healed. He taught. He performed miracles. He blessed children. He raised the dead. All of these were loving acts. But He was also loving when He turned over tables in the temple saying "You will not make my Father's House into a den of robbers," and driving men out with a whip. He was also loving when He told the religious leaders of His day that they were "vipers, hypocrites and white-washed fences," because they were leading people down the wrong path to salvation. And He was loving when He encountered the woman caught in adultery, and He showed her compassion, not only by not condemning her, but also by telling her, "Go, and leave your life of sin." Nice may be part of love, but love is not always nice.

So what is love? Well, Paul gives us a pretty good idea of what it looks like in I Corinthians 13. We have probably all heard this passage again and again as it is often read at weddings. He tells us that love should look something like this:  "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast; it is not proud. It is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."[1]

This is, in some sense, what "love" is supposed to look like. What you are on the outside says a lot about who you are on the inside. If love incarnate dwells in you, then you will be a loving person. It is not that you are perfect, not that you always get it right, but increasingly more and more you begin to love in all kinds of new ways.

So let me go back to that question, "How do I love Thee?" How are we to live out this love? Let me suggest just a few crucial ways.

First, we are called to love God--and specifically, for Christians--to love Jesus Christ. In John, Chapter 14, Jesus tells His followers, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments...." That chief commandment is, of course, love--thus to be able to fully, richly, love, we have to be connected to that Divine Source of love. There is no other way around it. God is love; and in order for us to love, we must love Him; which means surrender ourselves to Him as He is revealed in Christ Jesus.

This means that we wake with the prayer on our lips, "Today; not my will, but Thine be done," and then seek to live out that prayer by constantly handing over ourselves to God in Christ. So, we must love God.

We are also called to love our neighbor. If we love God, we will naturally begin to love those around us. There is a rather well-known story told by preachers that an American journalist was assigned the task of reporting on Roman Catholic hospitals that were in China. One day as he was touring one of these hospitals, he came across a nun who was cleaning the gangrenous sores of a soldier. The reporter looked at her and said, "I would not do that for a million dollars." The nun is said to have continued her work and said, " Neither would I, but for Christ, I would."

When we love God in Christ, then we will be able to carry out work that we could never have imagined before doing. God will flow through us so that we can love, more and more, all those we encounter.

Now of course we are to love those in our work, those with whom we attend church, those we encounter at the supermarket. But I also want to suggest that there is an inner circle of this love and that is those relationships given to us in our children, our spouses, our friends, our parents, our siblings. Jesus loved, but He also had an inner circle of Apostles, and within that circle, the smaller circle of Peter, James and John. 

Some years ago, a well-known leader of youth movements throughout the country died. He was heralded for all he had done to benefit the teens of our nation. Sometime later, a teen was found desecrating his grave. He was arrested and brought in and found to be the child of the youth leader.

In shock, the arresting officers asked him why would he do such a thing. The response was startling, "All those things he talked about; he did for everyone, for everyone but me."

It is possible to be a loving person to those on the surface of our lives, but we are also called to love, even more deeply, those intimate relationships.

And lastly, we are called to love ourselves. This is not "selfishness," as one might think. George Gallup once said, "A selfish person is one who is 'me-deep' in conversation." A selfish person is always looking out for his or her best interest. The world revolves around them and their concerns, joys, hurts, successes and failures. 

And yet, Jesus says we are to "love our neighbor as our self." We are to love ourselves. What does that mean? This means we are to give ourselves to those things that will better enable us to be the people, the loving people, God calls on us to be. There were times when Jesus had to pull away and be alone. There were times when enough was enough, and when He went off to be alone. He calls us to pray, rest, His word. But He also calls us to let these speak God's love to us.

For it is in these kinds of tasks that we find where we fall short of what God wants us to be; offer that to God's redemption, and reconnect with the love God has for us in Christ--the love that is perfect and whole, pure--and relentless in its pursuit of us. When we know God loves us like that, we can begin to do the same.

So we are called to love God, love our neighbor and love ourselves. All three of these. How? Toward the end of the movie The Hurricane from some years ago, we find the lead character, professional boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, talking with a young boy names Lesra. Carter, a victim of the false testimony of a racist, is about to be re-tried after being unjustly convicted and imprisoned for twenty years. Rubin looks on the boy and says, "We've come a long way...little brother..."

And Lesra nods and says, "Rubin, I just want you to know--if this doesn't work, I'm bustin' you outta here..." "You are, huh?" says Carter. After a moment of silence, Carter gets quiet and says, "Hate put me in prison. Love's gonna bust me out."

And Lesra responds, "Just in case love doesn't, I'm gonna bust you outta here." And Carter laughs and reaches out, touches the boy's face, wipes away a tear and then clenches Lesra's hand. Then he whispers, "You already have, Lesra."[2] Lesra's love had already freed Carter from that dark prison of despair and loneliness.

In a sense, love is very, very practical. It means we reach out to God, to others--even to ourselves--and we begin to unlock prisons, prisons of selfishness, sin, unforgiveness, hurt, pain, loneliness. Love is that healing balm that makes not just the wounds, but even the scars go away.

So let me end where I began...who you are on the outside says a great deal about who you are on the inside. Maybe there is someone around you today who needs to be released from their prison...maybe you need to let God out of one you have built that's holding Him away from you...maybe it is someone as close as a phone call, or the person in the pew or chair next to you today...maybe...maybe it's even--you. Love, in the end, requires not so much a cozy feeling as it does a decision...a decision to love.

"How do I love Thee?" By loving God; by loving your neighbor, by loving yourself.

I wonder..."How do you love Thee?" Amen.


[1]I Cor. 13:4-8a.

[2] Universal Pictures and Beacon Pictures, 1999.